Okay, but you can’t stay the night.
As soon as she says this, she feels emptied out. She looks away from him, into the mirror behind the bar.
You’ve done this before, he says. What other rules have you in mind?
He has a lopsided smile, and deep lines around his toffee-coloured eyes. She gazes at their image in the mirror—he’s holding her hand, kissing her neck, whispering French obscenities into her ear. Her torso is twisted slightly away from him, as if she were more interested in the drink behind the bar than him. He has silver strands in his hair, and his eyes are narrowed with lust. She notes that the dull blackness of her hair is unflattering in the harsh light, and that her roots betray the original mousiness of her hair. In order to distract from the roll of fat around her waist she has too many buttons undone on her blouse, revealing her pale, soft cleavage.
He tries to kiss her lips, misses and grazes her cheek. The scratch of his day-old stubble arouses her. She turns away from the mirror, and smiles at him, caresses his bare forearm. His skin is smooth and sallow. A fierce heat flares inside her, then it flickers out again. He is too handsome for her.
Her glass is empty, so she takes a sip of his wine.
That’s okay, help yourself, he says.
The smell of the wine revolts her for an instant. Her sense of smell has been heightened these last few days. Chlorine in the water. The ammonia reek from a toddler with a dirty nappy in the lobby. The Sauvignon Blanc they are drinking tastes and smells as sharp as cat’s piss. Yet this man, whose smiles she has returned for the last two days, has no smell at all, not even a whiff of aftershave, as if she had conjured him up, a chimera to flatter and cajole her.
The hotel is arranged like a Benthamite prison, with a tiered central panopticon of octagonal floors and balconies. From six flights ups, you could see them kissing at the bar below. Or you could hurl yourself from any balcony, and crash dramatically down onto the grand piano in the lobby. Not that they care who sees them in this city of strangers. Partners, children, duty, carefully packed away in their luggage for this night.
They are both drunk, biding their time now that the chase has all but ended. She stares out of the tinted glass windows of the hotel bar as he continues to describe in English and French what he wants to do to her.
Across the street there are two H&M stores, a Zara and a C&A, and right outside the hotel bar is a section of the Berlin wall owned by the hotel. You get a hammer and chisel, protective goggles, and a porter to help you carve out and buy a piece of history. She was shocked, and then dismayed by her own naivety. Everything is for sale, isn’t that the business she has found herself in, mangling language and creating images to instil false desire in people.
He orders her another glass of wine. They compare the souvenirs they have purchased, carefully omitting mention of spouses. Talk of children is allowed, but only for the briefest of moments. They agree that every city, every conference, throws up the same problem of where to find a toy shop.
At lunchtime, in a frantic search for toys on Friedrichstrasse, she had stumbled upon Checkpoint Charlie. Actors in fake army uniforms posed for photographs with tourists. Behind them a replica of the guardhouse of the former Allied-controlled border crossing between East and West Berlin. History emptied out, a vast array of simulacra to be purchased or photographed. Knots of tourists perused the text and photographs on the outdoor exhibition hoardings which attempted to explain the suffering those streets had witnessed. Then they turned away to browse through the stalls selling fake memorabilia of the Cold War. She couldn’t bear the travesty of it; she imagined the appalled ghosts of those murdered trying to escape Communism as prisoners once again, tethered to this no man’s land of ersatz memory.
On the way back to the hotel, she walked past one familiar chain store after another. She could be in Dublin, or any city in Europe, and only the knick-knacks in her bag (I Love Berlin pencils and model Trabant cars) reassured her that she had indeed entered a different city. This old city sewn back together, modernised and homogenised by commerce. She can’t summon a feeling for the city: it’s too spread out and slippery, it seems to have no centre.
Seized by a fit of rebellious depression, she decided to skip the afternoon session of the conference, the men in identical suits, the handful of women dressed just like her in black skirt, white blouse, and heels. She had no desire to listen to an earnest young woman talking about Online Sales and Marketing Solutions.
For a moment she considered visiting the Topographie des Terrors, or the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum. She stayed on Friedrichstrasse, and chose the benumbing pleasures of a department store over the piety of consuming history and culture like fast food. The Galeries Lafayette department store was a panoptic echo of the hotel, a dizzying array of luxuries, concession stands, and floors spiralling upwards to a glass dome. She drifted around the circular halls, eyes watering from the perfume samples that lingered in the air. On the third floor, she stopped to look at swimsuits. She wondered if she could brave the hotel pool, plunge her fleshy body into the same water as the taut, tanned girls she imagined haunted the bowels of the hotel where the spa breathed out its steamy scented oils. No, she couldn’t face it. She would treat herself to some new underwear instead.
An Agent Provocateur concession stand greeted her at the entrance to the lingerie department. A girl, about eleven years old, with long brown hair, stood in front of a mannequin. She looked puzzled as she examined the female doll, and bit into her ice-cream cone. The girl scrutinised the contraption of black leather belts, studs, and nipple pasties that perverted the doll’s plastic nakedness, as if she were eyeing up her future. The girl asked her mother something in German. The mother replied in a no- nonsense tone, examined a frothy pink bra, discarded it, and continued browsing. The little girl followed her mother past hold-up stockings, control underwear, padded bras, and stopped to examine pink plastic hearts in a box. She asked her mother another question. The mother took the box out of her daughter’s hand, and moved her along.
She stood in the spot vacated by the girl. She wondered what she might look like in the playsuit, and wondered at its name. A suit for pleasure, the opposite of the working clothes she wore—or just more of the same. She knew it would turn her on to wear it, to play the prostitute, play with the porn stereotypes, take pleasure from violating her own rage at them. Her husband would say, you look like a whore, you’re a mother for God’s sake, you look ridiculous, and he would laugh at her but still want to fuck her. The same man who sighed with relief the night of their wedding, and said, now we can stop pretending, and the jolt of fear in her when she realised what he meant.
The sales girl laughed at her shock when she told her the playsuit cost three hundred euro.
‘Women don’t buy these with their own money,’ she said and winked. ‘You get the man to buy them for you.’
She left empty-handed.
While her colleagues sat through Increasing Sales in European Markets, she wandered around the antique stores nestled underneath the S-Bahn track that ran between Friedrichstrasse and Hackescher Market. Fine bone china in delicate flower patterns. Glass decanters, soda spritzers, and ornaments in deep blues, bright reds, mouth- watering yellows, nostalgic greens. Intricate Art Deco jewellery, silver spoons, old photographs, vintage handbags, soft leather gloves, worn top hats, yellowing spats, gabardine coats, and porcelain dolls with horror movie faces. The stolen, lost, pawned, abandoned luxuries of the bourgeoisie. She couldn’t help thinking of gold fillings, and children’s shoes, piles of clothes, mounds of bodies and bones and skulls.
Nauseated, she left the gloomy shade of Georgenstrasse. Back on the main street, in the glare of the sun, she walked towards the river Spree. She crossed the bridge, and went deeper into East Berlin where graffiti and street art replaced, or at least vied with, brand logos. Artists’ studios, trendy bars, and organic restaurants with ubiquitous spray-painted exteriors housed in glamorously decaying buildings. Several barefoot girls walked the streets, bicycles in tow. So many people, so white, so young, some of them Irish, pursuing dreams of art installations, and best-selling novels, and exciting love affairs.
She walked around a courtyard where artists worked and displayed their wares. The sound of welders and hammers and laughter echoed through the network of alleys. She took a picture, on her phone, of an ugly metal sculpture of a mechanical bird-woman. Her own shadow zigzagged across the blurry shot, almost as deformed as the sculpture itself. Overcome with embarrassment at her boring work clothes, and by a fierce longing, she had to leave the place at once.
She went into a bar, ordered a Pilsner, and lit a cigarette. Smoking branded tobacco in a bar gave such a sense of transgression it was pitiful. It was Saturday, late afternoon, and the place was crowded. A Bulgarian boy sat beside her and said hello. They chatted about their countries, and then Berlin, with the ease of foreigners in an anonymous city. He told her about a sort of fake protest march held every summer in Berlin, which is ordered and police-sanctioned, and releases some tension but rarely any violence, and never any change. The police allow large amounts of drugs for personal use. Prostitution is legalised but only for registered, native German women. You pay your fees to the city, and are assigned your spot on the street.
Is all that true, she asked.
Yes, I think so, he said and smiled. He was like a cherub, blonde and dimpled, but with sad eyes. He said he hated his job, and missed his home town in Bulgaria, and the girl he left behind.
Someday I will go back home and live there.
Could you go back there, after this city?
I love my country. And my girl. You gotta have love right? There’s no point in living otherwise. You love someone and your country too, don’t you?
She felt stricken, deficient in comparison with the boy who could talk so easily of love, and of a country he loved.
I don’t love it. Well some things I used to love about it, but I can’t remember them now. I never left it because I never had the money, and then I married and had a family when I was quite young.
You fell in love when you were young, he said and smiled.
I don’t know if you’d call it that. It was just the thing to do.
You married without love, he asked, as if this were a crime.
You don’t understand what it’s like. What it was like.
What do you mean, asked the boy.
I never learned to talk about love the way you do. You have to put a good face on things, don’t make a fuss, keep bad things hidden. It’s like it’s a sin to tell the naked truth.
Well, many people are like that, you know, and it is not so great here either. In Berlin there’s a lot of racism and unemployment, and poverty, especially amongst Muslims.
Hours later she leaves the bar, kisses the cherub goodbye on the cheek after he tries to kiss her on the mouth. Goes back inside the bar to retrieve her children’s gifts. Outside again, she deciphers her map, and walks towards Hackescher Market to get a tram back to Friedrichstrasse and her hotel.
Despite her beer-haze, the smell of sewerage overwhelms her. Why is she so sensitive to smell all of a sudden? The light fades quickly, and the streets are suffused with a purple dusk. The weather is abnormally hot and sticky; prelude to a summer storm. She turns a corner, and sees the legally registered prostitutes standing defiantly on the street. They all wear high-heeled boots with platform soles of clear plastic, like portable pedestals. Their working uniform of corsets and bodices and shorts and stockings are so familiar from pop culture that they look like extras from a music video.
There’s one girl so young and pretty and distressed looking that, at first, she has to look away from her, but her gaze returns to her again and again. The girl paces back and forth like a trapped animal, her brown hair brushing her shoulders. Her tiny waist is compressed into a lavender basque, and she has thin shoulder blades as graceful as a dancer’s. Two men pass her by, and insult her in an unfamiliar, but universal, language. She shakes her head at them, frowns, and continues to pace restlessly.
She turns away from the girl, and walks on. Further down the street, older women strut more confidently, follow men, literally soliciting them. She catches the eye of a woman with blonde dreadlocks, red lips, a red corset, and red boots. The woman stares back at her with hatred in her eyes.
Don’t pity me, you bitch. We’re all the same, all in this for the money, she imagines her thinking. And she thinks, yes, we’re all slaves, working for companies and countries who own us body and soul. They allow us fake decadence, fake rebellions, regulated fun, and the city sells sex like a supermarket. A city cosies up to you and tempts you into shops, cafes, controlled underwear, watered down SubDom playsuits, into gated apartments like prisons, then into suburbs and families, passivity, houses with 2.4 kids, and husbands who dream of fucking schoolgirls, porn queens, your best friend, the babysitter, his best friend—anyone who isn’t you, who is new, fresh flesh. She longs for some vague freedom, for the erotic, just to be fucked again, used for a moment, and never mind the reality, the agony of bad sex, soulless sex, wilting awkward dry drunken sex. She longs for the erotic beauty of her fantasies, as she longs for riches, and physical perfection, and ultimate happiness.
She gets a tram back to the hotel, tripping on the steps, sitting down too heavily on the seat. Neon flashing past, the glimmer of blues and pinks on the dark river. Then she is back in the hotel, sitting at the bar with the French man, so drunk, but part of her is aware, watching, bemused. She tucks her bag of souvenirs under her bar stool.
They work quickly—he holds her hand, she smiles, they chat, and she shows him the presents she bought.
He kisses her briefly.
Are we going back to your room, he asks.
Okay, but you can’t stay the night.
They leave the bar, and kiss again in the lift, their bodies reflected to infinity in its mirrors. Her hotel room is cold, air-conditioned into numbness, and he turns the heating up without asking. Turns to her, and strips her of her clothes so quickly she is naked while he is fully clothed. She likes this, but wants to feel his skin, opens the buttons on his shirt, and kisses his hairless chest, gently bites his nipples. He doesn’t make a sound but when she opens his trousers she sees he is hard, circumcised, his pubes waxed symmetrically. She hasn’t shaved or waxed but he isn’t complaining. She talks to him and kisses him but he is silent, unsmiling, and he doesn’t want to kiss her back.
His hand is rubbing hard and fast between her legs.
She is dry but aroused, a voyeur of her own experience.
I’m not wet because I’ve had too much alcohol, and it’s all going too fast, she says.
He pushes her back onto the bed, removes his clothes. He is beautiful naked. She wants to drink in the beauty of his body, slowly like a glass of ice-cold champagne.
Slow down, please, I want to look at you, she whispers.
He takes a deep breath, lies on his back, and looks at the ceiling. She recognises guilt in his silence, in his avoidance of kissing, and thinks, okay, I can play the whore.
She straddles him and slides onto his prick, liking the slight roughness. Already she knows she won’t come no matter what they do, she can’t share that with him. She caresses the smooth taut skin of his arms, rubs her cheek across his waxed chest.
He’s holding her hips now, trying to get her to move faster, harder, and she sighs and moves off him.
What, he says.
Let’s try something else.
He flips her onto her back and spreads her legs, then grinds his palm into her.
Shit, you’re bleeding.
Blood all over his hand, streaming down the inside of her thighs. She can smell the ferric tang of it. Her period has come early, heavily, and with it that heightened sense of smell that had bothered her all day.
Sorry, she says, and smiles.
He isn’t disgusted, and this encourages her. She leads him to the bathroom, turns on the shower, and invites him in. He’s still hard, undaunted. Now they stop pretending that this is anything other than strangers using new bodies for pleasure.
He fucks her from behind but keeps slipping out because there is so much blood, and—she thinks—because she has had three children. He kneads her breasts, her generous belly, and then she knows what she wants him to do. She can’t say it but she can show him. She stops watching, loses herself in the dizzying freedom of sex with a stranger.
I want you to fuck me up the ass, a voice she doesn’t recognise says but it emanates from her, and he groans and holds her hips and pushes gently, expertly inside her.
Her first time, and she gasps with pleasure, with the strangeness of it, like entering a parallel universe. She can smell her blood still. He doesn’t make a sound, barely murmurs. He moves inside her, and she feels like she is on a drug, her senses hyper- alert, but not orgasmic. A different league of pleasure.
Then he stops though she would like him to go on. He gets out of the shower, and washes his prick carefully at the sink. He puts a towel on the floor, and motions for her to go down on her knees.
She gets out of the shower, and still wet, and dripping blood, she kneels and licks him, sucks him, scrapes her teeth lightly against him, uses her hand and mouth to bring him close to climax, then she lets go, and stands up.
I can’t. You finish and I’ll watch, she says, and she feels suddenly hollow, overcome with exhaustion.
He closes his eyes on her. She looks at their reflections in the mirrored bathroom, their bodies separate, multiplied, grotesque, comical. He works his fist, and comes without a sound, the white pearls of semen adorning his flat, brown belly. They don’t speak when he is finished. She gets back into the shower to wash, while he goes into the bedroom. As she finishes showering, he comes back into the bathroom.
Where have you hidden my trousers, you witch?
His eyes avoid hers, his voice is frantic.
She is horribly aware of her nakedness, covers herself with a scratchy hotel bathrobe, and follows him into the bedroom.
I can’t find my trousers, he says again, accusing her.
She wishes he would laugh, and she says with a smile, Well, I haven’t hidden them, but he doesn’t want to share the joke.
She helps him look, and finds the trousers hidden in the creases of the duvet, hands them to him. He dresses quickly, and goes to the door.
Are we all right, he says, but he’s not looking at her.
Sure. Don’t worry about it.
He hesitates for a moment, then leaves.
She turns off all the lights and lies on the bed and tries to feel something. All she can muster is a nagging awareness that she is bleeding into the pure whiteness of the bathrobe, that she should do something about it. She listens to the hum of the air conditioning, to shouts below on the street, to the crash of a glass bottle. The faint red glow of the standby light on the flat-screen TV is the only illumination in the room. She has the feeling that someone is watching her, that if she could see through the walls she would find a pair of eyes in there, the ghost of someone.
She has forgotten to call the children to say goodnight. The bag of souvenirs is still tucked under the bar stool downstairs.